Food safety is not an option for the U.S. produce industry. It’s an absolute necessity, said Dan’l Mackey Almy, DMA Solutions, during a panel discussion on produce safety at the recent Texas Produce Convention in South Padre island, Texas.

“Food safety now is a customized business practice,” she said, as the industry works towards consistent standards.

A key issue will be industry communication. “We need to tell consumers how products are distributed from the field and throughout (the retail chain),” she said.

“That doesn’t cost anything but time and effort.”

Speakers also discussed traceability, an issue that gained significant importance following food safety issues in 2006. Dan Vache, United Fresh Produce Association, said produce growers are doing a good job of maintaining safe food.

But traceability, he said, “gives consumers confidence. Our goal is whole chain traceability by 2012.”

A current problem is time. “We can’t trace products quickly enough. We need to be faster, and tracking through paper is not efficient. Information is inconsistent.”

The ability to trace products rapidly could reduce illnesses and save money within the supply chain. “It also minimizes the effect on consumer confidence,” Vache said.

Traceability throughout the supply chain is “an investment and should become a part of doing business,” he said. “Future outbreaks will happen but we will be able to track products with electronic records.”

Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst for the Food and Drug Administration Produce Safety Staff, said a zero incident goal for food contamination is infeasible. “But we must assure response as quickly as possible to minimize risk to public health and reduce the economic impact on the industry.”

One of FDA’s roles, promoting healthy diets, includes fruit and vegetable promotion. “We must have consumer confidence,” for that initiative to be successful, she said. “We must set science-based practices and enforceable standards.”

Updated standards were initially expected to be in place by the end of 2010. “Now, we expect them sometime in 2011,” Smith said. “Produce safety is not simple; it’s one of the most challenging regulations FDA has ever embarked on. The public and Congress have high expectations.”

Higher food safety standards will apply to imports. “Imports must comply with U.S. standards.”

She said food safety regulations do not come as a “one size fits all program. It has to be flexible, common sense and science-based.”

FDA coordinates efforts with many agencies to assure “adequate enforcement of laws to assure the safety of U.S. consumers. Corporate responsibility,” Smith said, “is still on the industry. We can’t do this alone and we need the cooperation of a lot of people with experience and hands on knowledge.”

David Gombas, United Fresh Produce Association, said two bills, one from the U.S. House of Representatives, and one from the U.S. Senate, will establish regulations for the produce industry.

The House passed a bill last year and the Senate bill is out of committee and a vote is pending.

“The bills have similarities and differences,” Gombas said. “Similarities will be in the final bill.”

Differences need to be worked out in conference. Points of divergence include fees, need to re-register either annually or bi-annually, traceability requirements (included in the House bill but not in the Senate), variations in civil penalties and fines for failure to comply, and a geographic quarantine regulation in the House bill that is not in the Senate version.

Gombas says a reconciled measure “is expected to pass.”